I met CJ through trumpgrets, a Twitter account that finds and retweets the affirmations of disappointed Trump voters. CJ is a registered nurse in Pittsburgh, PA. Before he was an R.N, he told me, he worked in real estate, and has an undergraduate degree in applied science. CJ’s been on Twitter since 2013, and a quick browse through his account history confirmed that he had been tweeting proactively in favor of Trump before and after the election. When I met him, his Twitter bio was full of American flag emoji, a favorite of pro-Trump accounts.
CJ’s support of Trump is consistent up until Jan 16th, the day BuzzFeed released their dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia. Since then, he’s been a vocal Trump opponent, tweeting to an oddball audience of diehard Trump fans and curious liberals. He’s removed the flag emoji and now retweets C-SPAN clips of cabinet hearings, accusing Trump of filling the swamp.
CJ represents an ideological niche that has fascinated me since the election: the Trump defector, someone who voted for Trump and then flipped. I reached out to see if he would be willing to do an interview. As we exchanged messages over the next few days, I got an inside glimpse into the workings of the pro-Trump propaganda machine, and advice on what we can do to fight it. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, presented with edits for spelling and clarity.
Spark & Fizz: Before this election, did you identify as Republican? Democrat? Independent?
CJ: I was more of an Independent. I felt the GOP had become outdated and had a reputation for being warhawks, which I didn’t like very much. As a Vet, in retrospect, I felt certain wars were used as a vehicle for profit. I saw Clinton as a hawk in her own right, so I felt we needed a change.
Spark & Fizz: Did you back anyone in the primary?
CJ: No I didn’t. I liked Rand Paul, but as DJT gained in popularity I lost interest. Nursing school was all consuming, along with a 35 hour work week. I had very little time for politics, and to be honest the past has taught us that most of the time, it’s two sides to the same coin anyhow. Obviously that’s a huge underestimation in this case.
Spark & Fizz: It sounds like you see both parties as representing the same thing despite putting forward seemingly different agendas.
CJ: I see both parties as putting forth interests that were more attuned to partisan division on social issues, but very in step with each other in selling out both parties on economic issues. I felt their true loyalty lay with special interests.
Spark & Fizz: It sounds like you weren’t sold on DJT from the beginning. Was there a moment when you decided you were going to vote for him?
CJ: Well I had always planned on voting against Hillary. Many Americans didn’t like the direction of the the country was headed in. I think I changed my mind about [Trump] once I heard him talk about ousting government corruption.
Spark & Fizz: How did government corruption affect you personally?
CJ: I would say I feel it in the form of taxes, I see it in crumbling neighborhoods where heroin has all but taken over. I feel it when I see our veterans mistreated but watch others take advantage of our welfare system get better healthcare. It bothers me when my nephews are going to school in unsafe school districts ignored by Democrats who run on fixing them yet never do. It’s truly sad because those are some issues I think most Americans on both sides wanted to fix and [Trump] will likely ruin that opportunity.
Spark & Fizz: Was there a moment you realized you no longer supported him?
CJ: Well, I read the 35 page dossier in addition to the Senate Intelligence report. Prior to this so little about his Russian ties had been discussed, and the media has always portrayed him as a wealthy businessman before the election. So I figured [the rumor of Russian interference] was just more partisan politics.
I guess the proper question is if [Trump’s] ties to Putin had been made front and center, would I have voted then? No, I would have given up entirely on our system.
Spark & Fizz: What scares you about Trump’s ties to Russia?
CJ: Well, the implications are huge. It calls all of his motives into question, every single campaign promise. Additionally, Putin working in concert with a POTUS to enable one another is very bad.
Spark & Fizz: Since you started being vocal against Trump, have you felt a response from both Trump supporters and liberals?
CJ: Many liberals have been positive but many more appear to take great pleasure in all of this. On the right, some are beginning to see it and have genuine concerns while others are completely brainwashed. They see all of it as a conspiracy against DJT which he of course feeds into. The most disturbing of all is the amount of trolls that have become apparent. It’s truly surprising. Many accounts that follow me have recently upped rhetoric that is pro-Putin while others have begun to blatantly taunt me in some ways.
Spark & Fizz: Do you think these are actual people or bots?
CJ: Well at first I figured they are bots, but the [dossier] cites trolls operating on social media as a very big part of [the disinformation] campaign, so who knows. If I had to bet I would say they are trolls spreading disinformation.
Spark & Fizz: And you’ve noticed that you’ve been targeted more and more by them?
CJ: Oh absolutely, almost as if they find it amusing now. [I’m] watching the breakdown of sanity moment by moment here. Some of these supporters or troll bots are non-stop. I feel like the lone sane man standing in a room. I can’t believe how good these things are at brainwashing some of his supporters.
Spark & Fizz: What do you think makes them so effective?
CJ: It’s really hard to tell [trolls] apart from [real Trump supporters]. At times [trolls] talk with one another. One technique they use [involves] a preferred account that has a ton of real Trump followers. The moment that guy or girl tweets Putin or Trump propaganda that falls in line with the message the Kremlin wants to put out, thousands of bots like and retweet [the post] to artificially boost the message. The Trump supporters just think it’s other Trump supporters who got the person to trend, and so the cycle continues.
Examples of CJ’s Twitter trolls
Spark & Fizz: It sounds like they’re taking existing, trusted voices in the pro-Trump world, adding their objectives to them, and then amplifying. Injecting this into the community.
CJ: Yes. Most of the time it’s very subtle and honestly I fell hard for a while.
Also there are many websites that look and claim to be actual news but are Russian disinformation channels, such as Infowars. Alex Jones is a good example, but there are several others that appeal to more sensible people, and are more attuned to Russian bias, like the way CNN is more liberal in bias. Other than RT [Russia Today] there are almost 200 other websites that the Kremlin uses to spread disinformation. Most Americans are exposed to this all the time, and the message is tailored to your social media account.
Spark & Fizz: How do we fight this?
This is a new type of warfare that extends right into the most private places of the American public. You literally are inviting Putin into your home at night. He is masterful in the sense that no one wants to believe they could be manipulated in this way. Like the old saying goes, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to make you believe he doesn’t exist.
Spark & Fizz: Who do you think influences you the most now? Is there anyone you follow, on Twitter or elsewhere, whose opinions you feel are valid and trustworthy?
CJ: I really try to think for myself. If there is one thing to be learned is that we can’t simply look at facts through our own biased lens. People tend to gravitate towards what they want to be true and away from what they don’t want to believe. The truth usually lies somewhere in the obvious middle. So I would say those principles need to govern our take on what we trust. We have to ask ourselves if we are looking at both sides equally and allowing facts to formulate our opinion rather than partisan bias.
Spark & Fizz: What’s your strategy or advice on reaching people like you, who may have supported Trump but are growing more critical of him?
CJ: I would say it’s important to not bash people. People listen to reason, and 99% of his voters have been treated very poorly in the media, and mislabeled. They are very offended and shut down easily.
Spark & Fizz: I almost wonder if liberals are capable of reaching these folks at the moment. I think we’re very much the enemy to a lot of Trump voters.
CJ: Well yes I agree with that. Again, the division on both sides is something that needs to end if we ever want to be a great country again. We have lost the ability to discuss issues in a civil manner. I am doing my best to reach people, and as time goes many are suspicious of his ties to Russia in light of recent comments.
Spark & Fizz: What advice do you have for liberals right now?
CJ: I would like to point out that [liberals] shouldn’t be too harsh on [Trump’s] voters. This disinformation campaign is unprecedented in scope and degree of success and it goes back 5-8 years. It took advantage of media bias and government corruption along with unprecedented levels of partisan division over the last 8 years.
Best advice is this. Reach out to each other across the aisle. We all want a better future for ourselves. We are at a place where we don’t communicate anymore. Both sides have reduced the hallmark of civil debate to its lowest common denominators. The best of all outcomes through our history have come through compromise. It’s time to treat each other like people rather than labels. I think if we do this everyone will be better off.
Remember we have survived a lot as a nation. I doubt an orange clown who isn’t a good liar is going to be the one who gets the big win. Having faith in our Democratic process, institutions and each other will Trump the Trump.